Life Lessons at the Hard Rock Casino


On the day before Christmas I’m celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday party at the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, Florida. Raised in chaos — the sense of something destructive and hidden lurking in our home, the slow, painful awareness of my mother’s addictions — I was hardly elated by my son’s suggestion that we celebrate my mom’s birthday here, but at 90 I suppose she is entitled to do what gives her pleasure.

My son hands her a big wad of hundreds and off she goes, clutching her pocketbook and her cane, more alive than I’ve seen her for a while. Sitting mesmerized in front of the slot machines, she is young again. I stay long enough to feel my revulsion for all the thinly disguised, hypnotic inducements — the pulsation of the music, the perfectly timed flashing of neon, the over stimulation, the sleepwalking vendors handing out liquor and cigarettes. There’s not one window, not one clock, and it’s open 24 hours every day of the week.

On Christmas morning, my mother wakes early and returns to the floor. I look for an exit, somewhere to peek out at real sunshine, but the place is a maze, the exits intentionally hard to locate.

It wasn’t the way I envisioned spending Christmas, a sweet and holy day, a day of peace and hope, a day I recall from a folk song when there was a momentary and spontaneous truce between the Germans and the Allies, who simultaneously began to sing “Silent Night” in their respective languages. Peace. A deep yearning of the soul to experience the exquisite stillness of the night sky.

Big mind, according to Buddhism, is empty and spacious. No matter how cluttered our minds become with fears, cravings, judgments and sorrows, the spacious mind is always there. It asks nothing of us, not even to drop our reactivity, positions and closets filled with stale facts and data about reality. It does not ask us to drop our self-delusions, identities and endless projections through which we perceive the world. It does not ask to be recognized. But it offers the hope of peace.

It is now Christmas and the family is toasting my mother and offering her our gratitude. Every person at the table owed their existence to her. Suddenly my resentment is gone. Had her demons and the traumas of her childhood profoundly impacted me? Of course, but she had also changed a thousand diapers and fed me ten thousand meals. She did indeed offer me life.

After dinner they all return to the macabre world of slots and flashing neon and a consciousness that felt dense and sluggish. I retreat to my room. In the elevator, a middle-aged woman with a rotund belly and sweet smile strikes up a conversation. She asks me if I’ve been lucky. I offer a neutral nod and politely ask her the same. I’m lucky to be alive, she tells me; I should have been six feet under but My Lord keeps offering me His hand. She then offers me a voucher for a free alcoholic beverage, a Christmas present. I don’t drink but I accept it in gratitude for her generosity.

Suddenly, surprisingly, the casino ceases to be the threat I conjured up. Who am I to judge? Who am I to put myself apart from or beyond it all?

My consciousness becomes slippery, like Teflon, a river of time where events are carried out to the vast ocean. The river flows through me, and I feel the spaciousness of Big Mind. It is now a silent night, a holy night. I have found the exit, or the exit has found me. It did not come by my escaping, but by opening and accepting life on its own terms. I cease resisting, judging and resenting.

Life in this moment is not showing up the way I want it, but rather, the way it is. In this moment, I am reminded that holiness comes through an acceptance of it all — and through the unexpected kindness of a woman grateful to be alive, who gifts me a voucher and a smile.

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